This three day trip started with a bang, literally, as I was making the trip to Clarkesville to pickup Kellye to head to the Great Smoky Mountains for a three day backpacking trip with SHOE and Turtle. I had to make an emergency pit stop in the dark, under an interstate bridge pylon and sacrificed my favorite pink bandana…
When I get to Kellye’s I realize my camera is missing and we have to backtrack to the scene of “The Incident” where I find it laying next to my pink banadana…
Hopeful that this was not going to be a theme for this trip, we headed to the hills.
We met our hiking buddies, SHOE, (slowest hiker on earth), and Turtle at the Smokemont campground dropped my car at the Mingus Creek Trailhead and headed to the Thomas Divide Trailhead. Thomas Divide is named for William Holland Thomas (1805-1893,) who gained so much favor with the Cherokees that he became the only white man ever appointed Chief. This self-educated lawyer lived with the Indians, learned their language and ways, and defended their rights in Washington. He helped purchase much of the land known as the Qualla Boundary. He was a Confederate Colonel and the bravery of his Thomas Legion of Cherokee Indians and Highlanders is legendary. (Sorry for the history lesson, but I found this interesting)
The trail was moderate with some decent climbs and rewarded us with the diversity of flora and fauna that makes the Smokey Mountains unique. The rhododendrons were abundant and still in full bloom. Yellowish brown cobs of squawroot poked through the leaves. I couldn’t remember what they were called but found out that this is a favorite food of black bears. (We saw much evidence of bears but figured that four chattering women would be enough to scare any bear off!)
We took our time on this warm, sunny day, catching up and taking turns leading the hike. As elevation changed, so did our surroundings. The ghostly silhouettes of hemlocks ravaged by the woolly adelgid against the sky, numerous coves of hardwoods and always the forest floor was alive with fungi and wildflowers.
Arriving at Campsite #52, at Newton Bald, we found a solitary camper who had set his five man tent up in the center of the fire ring area! Kellye scouted the area and found the perfect ridge top spot to spend the night. While we searched for the perfect hammock trees and Lesly and Melissa looked for a flat spot for their tents and we began the ritual of setting up our temporary home for the night.
Our first “excitement” of the trip occurred when Kellye wandered off to take care of some personal business and interrupted a bear! The bear grunted a warning to let her know he was there and they both took off in opposite directions. She quickly came back to home base, eyes wide and put us all on alert that we were not alone!! Needless to say, I did not wander far to take care of my personal business after that!
Dinner was cooked and we spent an inordinate amount of time coaxing flames out of a stubborn fire, night fell, the temperatures dropped into the upper fifties and we all retired to our sleeping quarters. I listened to a little bit of Pat Conroy’s latest and drifted off to sleep only to be jolted awake by the sound of what I was sure was a BEAR climbing the tree that my hammock was attached to!!! The commotion continued as everyone scrambled out of their tents asking Kellye if she was okay, so I rolled out and found her hammock had “ratcheted” DOWN the tree!! Fortunately, she was fine and we all went back to bed. (We think she might have a trail name, Ratchet!)
Day 2, we took our time with breakfast and breaking camp, enjoying the cool temperatures before beginning our hike. We continued on Thomas Divide heading to Deep Low Gap, again enjoying the diversity of the trail. Excitement came when Lesly and I spotted a small creek off the trail. She needed water and I dropped my pack and went off the trail to capture a photo of some red bee balm. Immediately what felt like needles on my legs caused me to scream, as the realization that yellow jackets were swarming around us! Needless to say, we both moved quickly but not before I had at least 12 reminders of why I never want to step in another yellow jacket nest. After retreating a safe distance we took a break where everyone contributed Benadryl cream, anti-itch and Neosporin to ease the sting. (Truth be told I wanted to cry, but satisfied that urge with talking with my trail mate.)
As we began our descent into the lush green forest, crisscrossing small streams, it occurs to me that we have been going down a looooong time and that we will be backtracking up this haul tomorrow morning…….We reach our destination, the very slanted world of campsite #51. Being in the Gap, there is little breeze and the temperature and humidity have increased. Again, we repeat the camp setup ritual spreading out due to an absence of flat areas and spend the rest of the day, chatting, sharing stories, laughing, eating and daydreaming.
As night falls, I gratefully climb into my hammock and quickly fall asleep, only to be awakened around 3:00 am to thunder and rain. After assuring myself that my tarp was secure and all my belongings were underneath and dry, I slipped back to sleep until dawn. Our plan was to leave early, due to the number of miles and difficulty of the trail for the day, so I packed my hammock and gear and sat under the tarp drinking my coffee and eating a builders bar. (a nice perk of having a hammock means you can pack everything up underneath the tarp, leaving it for last)
We all begin the slow tortuous climb in the rain to the intersection that will take us to the Mingus Creek Trail and our car. Seriously, even though I have eaten most of my food, my pack feels just as heavy as when I started and it takes me a bit to find my trail rhythm. Unfortunately a couple more yellow jackets find my rhythm and get between my pack and back delivering more stings!! We space out a bit, each hiking our own hike and meet sweaty and tired at the top of the climb. A downhill stretch follows along the creek and takes us to 90 foot waterfall. It is still raining, so the photo op is cut short as we slip and slide across a narrow bridge crossing and continue down to the trail intersection, where thankfully the rain ends and the sun starts to stream through the trees. After consulting the trail map, we take off on the Mingus Creek Trail. The trail starts innocently enough, absolutely beautiful and follows and crosses the creek for some time. As the temperature and humidity increase, so does the climb. Kellye and I hike together, stopping periodically to curse the trail and sip some water, even taking a break or two for a gu and bar break. As always, about the time, I think I can’t lift my leg another step, we reach the top and collapse for a well deserved break! This was a tough trail! Spotting the trail sign for Newfound Gap Road at 2.9 miles made us very happy!!
However, that happiness was short lived as we began the trek over a jarring, rocky, mossy, slick downhill!! BUT it was sooooo beautiful. If we had more time, I would have loved to linger at the many creek crossings and moss covered logs that called my name! But at that particular moment the lure, of my dry clothes and a burger at the NOC were a motivating factor! As we got closer to our destination the trail widened and we were able to walk side by side, recapping some of the highlights of the trip. The aching shoulders, legs and blistered feet were replaced by the pure joy of spending time outdoors and conquering any difficulties that came our way.
As we burst into the parking area and into reality, I contemplate offering the nearby picnickers a $10.00 bill for a cold drink. NOTE: If you ever see dirty, sweaty, smelly people piling out of the woods with their life on their back, offer them a cold drink, they will never forget you!
The reward for this journey ends at the Nantahalah Outdoor Center or the NOC. I have been hearing about the Flamethrower Burger and the HOMEMADE chips for the entire trip and satisfy this fantasy with my friends. A berry cobbler topped with ice cream is the icing on the cake. Sitting on the river with my feast and friends, I count my many blessings and dream of the next adventure…..